The Hip Get In Touch With Polar Bears

Gus the polar bear — stingnygaard, creative commons

Gus the polar bear — stingnygaard, creative commons

In anticipation of the release of the new Tragically Hip album, In Between Evolution, and the Hip’s big Canada Day Concert at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre, ChartAttack is declaring June 25 – 30 “Tragically Hip Week.” Leading up to July 1, we’ll be posting stories culled from a recent interview with Hip singer Gord Downie.

Here’s the third installment:

The Tragically Hip want you to know about the plight of depressed polar bears. One of the most compelling songs from The Hip’s new album In Between Evolution is an earnest ode called “Gus: The Polar Bear From Central Park.”

Gus, for those of you not up on your cults of animal appreciation, is one of the main attractions of the Central Park Zoo in New York. The giant bear was diagnosed with depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior back in ’94, largely caused by the fact that tight zoo quarters tend to wreak havoc on the well-being of polar bears used to roaming 25 kilometres per day in the wild.

“Any time you’ve ever seen any animal in captivity — especially big guys like that — there’s a behavior that becomes pretty easy to spot. A dementia is what they call it,” says Hip frontman Gord Downie. “They have other names for it. Depression. So that’s sort of what we’re paying money to go see.”

To the Zoo’s credit, they paid $25,000 to an animal behaviorist to help find ways to get Gus out of his funk, which resulted in extensive activation programs to help his illness. And a few years ago they gave Gus’s quarters a massive expansion as well as providing him with some company in the form of two female companions, Ida and Lily. All this has made Gus and his girlfriends quite the media stars.

In addition to The Hip’s sonic salute, numerous news stories have been written about Gus. He’s also been the subject of a children’s book and a short film as well as inspiring performance art and fringe plays. His own “art” (chunks of log he has scratched up and chewed up rubber balls) will soon be available for sale on eBay.

Downie says the inspiration for the song came from a headline he read in the newspaper during a visit to New York. In the song, Gus is too down to feel like killing anything, which is a symptom of his depression.

“I know for a fact that polar bears, as a rule, and not even as a rule, unequivocally, want to kill anything that moves and eat it,” he says. “So there’s no sort of, I don’t think there’s any really taming them, really. And I think it’s one of those things where, yeah, if you’re up there in the tundra and you’re moving around, the only reason it’s not going to kill and eat you is because it’s already full. There’s something about that that’s kind of compelling to me.

“And we needn’t look much further than our own lives, I guess. I guess you can expand upon those feelings and thoughts as much as you like when you see that. Which I guess is also about what we pay money to see or do.”

The Tragically Hip’s In Between Evolution is in stores today.

This story was originally published June 29, 2004 via Chart Communications.

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Gordon Downie — Coke Machine Glow (Album Review)

Gord Downie's Coke Machine Glow

Gord Downie’s Coke Machine Glow

In order to fully understand Gord Downie’s new record Coke Machine Glow you first have to understand the parameters of the comparisons. Downie, the point man for The Tragically Hip, has long established himself as the mildly eccentric singer for one of the most successful Canadian rock bands ever. The Hip’s peers are no less than the biggest of the big (The Guess Who, Rush), but with Downie’s new solo project he’s hoping you’ll join him on a journey that will propel his work into an entirely different class of company.

Best described as the land of the earthy poet kings, this is the place inhabited by artistic giants like Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Cockburn and Daniel Lanois. To be lumped in amongst these universally respected, artistically vibrant solo artists takes a massive leap of faith considering Downie is the reigning monarch of beer hoist rock. And when it comes down to it, reluctant mucho props forthcoming, Downie ably meets this challenge.

Coke Machine is a wonderful success for a number of reasons:

1) With the exception of The Rheostatics, I can’t think of anyone whose imagery more effectively defines the term “Canadianna” (see the “Lofty Pines”).

2) It is not — in any way — like a Tragically Hip record. I’ve got a theory going that security on this release was so tight not because the record company were worried about leaks, but because they didn’t want advance word getting out that the record was full of mandolins, accordions and fiddles, thereby alienating the bulk of their cash-cow Hip following (check the jug-band rock of “Yer Possessed”). But I digress.

3) The impeccable eccentricity of it all. With a list of musicians helping out that reads like a who’s who on the permanent guest list of the Horseshoe Tavern, the seemingly disparate contributions of people like Jose Contreras, Dale Morningstar, Andy Maize and others are all unified under the sparse, challenging umbrella of sound they create.

4) If song titles like “Nothing But Heartache In Your Social Life,” “Boy Bruised By Butterfly Chase” and “Insomniacs Of The World, Good Night” don’t reek of titles lifted straight out of The Smiths songbook, I’ll eat my Meat Is Murder CD.

The greatest achievement with Coke Machine isn’t in any one actual song. There’s not a lot of the highest highs here. But as a whole, it’s all both unique and comforting, a sound that can only be described as Kawartha cottage porch rock. Held together by what seems like a case of beer, a half-dozen friends, some acoustic guitars and a few discreet hot knives behind the woodshed, Downie has managed to create a piece of work that defines what Canadian music truly sounds like in all its simple, naive majesty.

This review was originally published March 20, 2001 via Chart Communications.

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Gord Downie Loves The Trailer Park Boys

Trailer Park Boys

Trailer Park Boys

In anticipation of the release of the new Tragically Hip album, In Between Evolution, and the Hip’s big Canada Day Concert at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre, ChartAttack is declaring June 25 – 30 ” Tragically Hip Week.”

For the next three news days, we’ll be posting stories culled from a recent interview with Hip singer Gord Downie. Here’s the second installment:

The Tragically Hip may have a new record called In Between Evolution coming out and a marquee Canada Day show, but lead singer Gord Downie has something more important to talk about — the Trailer Park Boys. The conversation begins innocently enough, revolving around the mention that the new record is littered with references to gunsmoke and bullets.

“Yeah,” confirms Downie, “and swearing. No nudity, though. Unlike past records.”

Which means that, despite its dangerously high rocking level, church-goers can probably still dig the record.

“That’s right. So I don’t get the full Trailer Park Boys warning — dope references, nudity,” says Downie, before bursting forth with a most entertaining tangent. “Well, that’s the thing actually. They [the Trailer Park Boys] are trying to make a movie. I was saying to [producer Mike] Clattenburg, ‘You get to open up a whole new area of offensiveness.’ Well, not offensive. I think it’s beautiful. Most people love it. It’s great.”

For those of you still willfully oblivious, Trailer Park Boys is a Showcase/BBC America mockumentary that follows Ricky, Bubbles and Julian, three petty criminals whose drunk/stoned shenanigans end up causing some form of televised hilarity each week. Canada’s elite level rockers have all but deified the show’s protagonists in recent years. Alex Lifeson of Rush was kidnapped on one episode of the show and on another crooner Rita McNeil was forced to harvest marijuana for the Boys. The Boys have also appeared on tour with Our Lady Peace and have been featured in The Hip’s “The Darkest One” video. Also, thick-glassed Bubbles real-life alter-ego used to play in a genuine East Coast rock band whose name starts with an S, ends with an X, and has seven letters.

One of the Boys’ main adversaries is the character of trailer park supervisor Jim Lahey, a drunkard whose gift for shit metaphor is unparalleled. The mere mention of Lahey’s name sends Downie into a giddy line-for-line recall session.

“‘We’re heading into a full-fledged shiticane!’ ‘Pull up the jib, Randy, because it’s about to be covered in shit.’ But the ones they discard… Mike’ll tell ya. The one’s they’ve come up with, it fuckin’ hurts you laugh so much,” Downie enthuses. “And we haven’t even talked about J-Roc [a white hip-hopper played by Jonovision‘s Jonathan Torrence]. I don’t know. They’re just so funny.”

Beyond the dope humour and hijinx though, Downie figures there’s another reason why folks love the Trailer Park Boys.

“I think, more than the broad, sweeping idea of Canadian, we tend to relate to the people we grew up with,” he says. “This is a country of small towns, right? Let’s face, even Toronto. I think that the Trailer Park Boys, everybody knows someone like them.”

The Tragically Hip play Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre July 1. In Between Evolution hits stores tomorrow (June 29).

This story was originally published June 28, 2004 via Chart Communications.

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The Tragically Hip On Roadside Attraction: “We’ll Do It Again”

The Tragically Hip

The Tragically Hip

In anticipation of the release of the new Tragically Hip album, In Between Evolution, and the Hip’s big Canada Day Concert at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre, ChartAttack is declaring June 25 – 30 “Tragically Hip Week.”

For the next four news days, we’ll be posting stories culled from a recent interview with Hip singer Gord Downie. Here’s the first installment:

The last nail may have been hammered into Lollapalooza’s coffin with the recent announcement of its tour cancellation, but The Tragically Hip’s leadman Gord Downie says Another Roadside Attraction, their personal travelling festival/caravan, will some day get revived.

“We’ll do it again,” he says. “We’ll do something like that for sure.”

The band have convened the Attraction twice in the last 10 years. The ’97 edition of the Roadside tour spanned eight dates (seven Canadian, one American) and showcased Sheryl Crow, Los Lobos, Ashley MacIsaac, Wilco, Change Of Heart, The Mutton Birds, Ron Sexsmith and Van Allen Belt. In ’95, the tour featured Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers, Matthew Sweet, Blues Traveller, Spirit Of The West, The Inbreds, Eric’s Trip and The Rheostatics.

Considering that Crow and Wilco are now super-duper stars and that Ron Sexsmith is an internationally-touted singer-songwriter of the highest order, the ’97 class turned out mighty fine. The Inbreds and Eric’s Trip disappearing and Blues Traveller still existing puts a bummer spin on the ’95 event, but still, a new Attraction would be something to dig regardless.

Of course, when you slap your name on top of a fancy festival, you’re the ones finding the bands, making sure their schedules all jive, finding the venues and making sure they’re all available and generally have to be the dudes responsible for making sure everyone has a good ol’ time. Downie figures the intense organizing that something like Roadside requires is the main reason they haven’t done one in awhile.

“It sort of hasn’t been in our plans the last few years,” he says. “I think we know how to do it. It’s not without its drawbacks. It’s sort of like planning about 10 weddings or something — all that happening in a row over two weeks, cuz it’s big. But we sure had a great time, met great people doing that. Saw some greaaaat music over the years.”

Of course, Hip fans yearning for that communal festive vibe will still get an opportunity to revel in some hot blues-rock action. The band have rather strategically set up a July 1 Canada Day concert at Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto.

Says Downie: “I’m sure it’ll sell out and be a good ol’ time… I think it’ll be good.”

This story was originally published June 25, 2004 via Chart Communications.

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The Hip Dedicate Song To Dead Hockey Player Dan Snyder

Dan Snyder

Dan Snyder

In celebration of the release of the new Tragically Hip album, In Between Evolution, and the Hip’s big Canada Day Concert at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre, ChartAttack is declaring June 25 – 30 “Tragically Hip Week.” Leading up to July 1, we’ve been posting stories culled from a recent interview with Hip singer Gord Downie.

Here’s the last installment:

The looming NHL strike/lockout may cause irreparable damage to the good name of hockey, but The Tragically Hip will continue to mine its most dignified moments in song. “Heaven Is A Better Place Today,” the first track on The Hip’s new album In Between Evolution is dedicated to Dan Snyder, the Atlanta Thrasher hockey player who was killed in a car accident last fall.

Synder died in October from the wounds he suffered when, as a passenger, he was thrown from teammate Dan Heatley’s Ferrari when Heatley lost control of the car, causing it to crash. Heatley broke his jaw and suffered a leg injury in the crash.

This would be far from the first time The Hip have used the world’s fastest game as a muse. “Fifty Mission Cap” is about the mystique behind Bill Barilko’s last goal/death, the song “Fireworks” is hockey-related and leadman Gord Downie has published a poem called “The Goalie Across The Street.”

In typical Hip fashion, though, Downie’s lyrics have layers of meaning that go beyond eulogizing a hockey player.

“I don’t know if it’s about anything so much as it’s a collection of, I don’t know, things people say to comfort each other, perhaps? Or themselves?” says Downie, who then sings one of the lines from the song to help articulate his explanation. “‘If and when you get into the endzone, act like you’ve been there a thousand times before.’ Like, it’s an ethos, it’s sort of ‘be cool, buddy.'”

Downie says it was the honour and dignity that Snyder’s fellow Thrasher teammates exemplified in the face of crisis which compelled him to write the song. The sight of young, strong men mourning a comrade’s senseless death has rather worldly parallels that aren’t to be ignored, either. Most importantly though, the song is about how bravely people face death.

“No one ever asks them [hockey players] anything else except about hockey. And around the events that you’re talking about, the one common denominator is that there’s nowhere to hide a conversation around death. There’s no easy, quick, humourous aside — unless you’re Irish — that gets you out of it. And people see it and rise to those sorts of occasions and say the correct thing. As close to correct as they can,” says Downie, who then sings/paraphrases some more from the song to articulate his point. “‘And heaven is a better place today because of this, but the world is not the same’… mmmmmmm… ‘don’t blame, but don’t say that people lose people all the time anymore.’

“And with this line, I guess again, you can take it broader. One could say you can’t treat these men’s lives with a soundbite. People lose people all the time. And death is a natural part of life, of course… but still.”

This story was originally published June 30, 2004 via Chart Communications.

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The Tragically Hip, ‘Now For Plan A’: A Big, Weird Interview With Canada’s Biggest, Weirdest Band

The Tragically Hip in Kensington Market

The Tragically Hip in Kensington Market

There’s something surreal about seeing one of the country’s biggest and most iconic bands play in a small club in Toronto’s perennially underground Kensington Market.

The crowd packed into the back room of Supermarket — renamed “Now For Plan A” Headquarters for the duration of The Tragically Hip’s three day residency in celebration of the release of their brand new album of the same name — can barely believe what’s about to happen as they wait for the band to take the stage for their first in a series of free mini-sets they’re playing throughout the day.

Despite the fact that The Hip stopped foot traffic with a number of surprise performances the day before during one of the artisan market neighbourhood’s beloved Pedestrian Sundays, despite the widely publicized promise of more shows on Monday and Tuesday, and despite the fact that the wristbands we were given at the door prominently display the band’s name in bold black letters, the fans around me nervously joke that the whole thing might be a ruse, that some no-name band who didn’t write Canadian classics like “Courage,” and “Ahead By a Century” will promptly take the stage at 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon and dash all of their dreams.

It takes the appearance of all five founding members of the band — guitarists Paul Langois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair, drummer Johnny Fay and, of course, singer Gord Downie — on stage to finally convince them that this is really happening.

The Tragically Hip, the band that have been filling Canada’s arenas for over two decades with stories of wrongfully convicted killers, tragic hockey players and young love blossoming in the face of the cold war, somehow seem both larger than life and completely at home amongst the few hundred fans who have skipped work and school to see them play. Downie shares conspiratorial smirks with the crowd as they launch into Now For Plan A‘s opening track, “At Transformation.” Then they encourage a singalong to “Grace, Too” before capping things off with a chilling take on another new song, “Man Machine Poem.”

But after the band finish their three-song set — and wrap up a genial autograph session in which the band trade jokes with fans as they sign every last piece of Hip memorabilia and Plan A vinyl — I find myself in a scenario that makes everything that happened before it seem normal and mundane by comparison: actually sitting down and talking to The Tragically Hip.

As I trade greetings, shoe compliments and, somewhat inexplicably, neck tattoo jokes with Rob Baker and Gord Downie, I decide to start things on a light note. I ask if the title of the song “Streets Ahead,” a phrase that became a running joke on an episode of the cult TV show Community, was inspired by the character of Pierce Hawthorne (played by Chevy Chase) and his use of it.

Watch Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) Explain “Streets Ahead”

“Pierce Hawthorne,” Downie repeats, blank-faced. “Is that a writer?”

I say that he’s a character on a TV show, and that he claims to have coined the phrase.

“Oh really? How do you ‘coin’ something?” he asks, bemused.

The Hip, it seems, came across the words “streets ahead” in an entirely different way.

“I definitely heard it in passing, but I think it was a BBC program… Is that guy English? He sounds English.”

“Pierce Hawthorne. He’s French, Gord,” Baker jokes.

“Well then, I understand,” Downie says with a laugh. “No. I don’t know.”

I try to explain the joke and the use of the phrase in the context of the episode, but it’s too late. I have unwittingly started a feud between the lead singer of The Tragically Hip and a fictional character.

“I’m just incredulous, sort of like… aghast and really impressed by that kind of convincingness. ‘I coined that!'” he muses. “Anyway, you tell him I’m looking for him.”

We move on to more serious topics after that, starting with their lyrics. For a band that made their name on storytelling epics like “Wheat Kings” and tongue and brain-twisting tunes along the lines of “Poets,” Now For Plan A feels like a departure. Over time, the dense wordplay and metaphors that characterized their work seem to have evolved into more oblique and sparse imagery, with relatively simple phrases often repeated like mantras. The difference was particularly noticeable during their performance when the thoughtful and wordy “Grace, Too,” from the band’s 1994 album Day For Night, was juxtaposed with the more stark and obscure “Man Machine Poem.”

I ask if they feel that their lyrics have become more abstract over time. Downie mulls it over.

“Abstract? No. I think… visceral, for sure. But again, a practical, not a mystical kind of thing. I said to the guys, ‘Give me five things each. Let me just react to something.’ And they did, knowing a sort of improvisation is better than anything you can write — spontaneity. And so certain songs came like that. ‘Man Machine Poem’ is an example. It came very quickly and I really did want to screw with it. So what did you call it? Impressionistic? No, you said abstract,” he pauses and considers the word again.

“Maybe.”

Watch Tragically Hip’s “Machine Man Poet” Video

We move on to the sound of the album, which mixes meaty, Fully Completely-esque bar rock with the more introspective and occasionally haunting sound they’ve been nurturing since Trouble at the Henhouse and “Ahead By a Century.”

Baker takes over.

“I don’t think you ever leave stuff behind,” he says. “You know, we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We know what we do well and you try and learn from everything you do and carry that forward into what you do next. We had great experiences making the last bunch of records and they’re great learning experiences. And we carry that forward, and some of it is ‘Yes, we want to take this and we want to leave that.'”

Downie leans over and asks his guitarist a question.

“With Fully Completely, did we know those songs really well before we went in?” he says. “We went over to England to do them, so I bet we did. We really worked the shit out of them.”

“Well, it was a mixed bag with Fully Completely,” Baker says, reminding him. “About half the album we really knew and had road tested and there were about five songs that we hadn’t.”

“It’s like this record in that regard,” the singer offers.

Baker recalls feeling frustrated with Fully Completely at first, that the songs he loved playing so much on the road sounded “sterile” on the record.

“You never know,” he shrugs. “When you walk out of a studio after making a record, you feel pretty shattered. Like, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t play the guitar or… it can be a pretty brutal experience sometimes. And I remember walking out of Fully Completely feeling that way.”

“What brings you back?” Downie asks, stroking his chin in mock-seriousness.

“Because you go out live and it’s like ‘Yeah. This is really good. These songs are good. Some of these songs really have life.'”

I ask Baker if he’s reached a similar level of acceptance with Plan A yet.

“Some of these songs we’ve been playing live for two years now,” he replies.

“We knew them well,” Downie agrees. “For various reasons, the record was held up and delayed, but it just meant that we would sort of woodshed and really work the tunes, like we did in the earliest days, because you only had limited amounts of studio time to go forward.”

“We never made a record so quickly as this record,” Baker interjects.

“And then we went in, here in [Toronto neighbourhood] Parkdale, on Noble Street, and cranked it out in 10 days, really,” Downie continues. “And so those sort of sonic differences or sonic similarities might be that, might be that we knew our songs well before we started singing them, as Dylan says you should, and then recorded them knowing everything, going through those elusive things like emotion and performance and then you’re close. Then you’re close on a recording. But we just played ‘Modern Spirit’ yesterday for the first time live out here in Kensington and it just jumped into where it should be. You know, it’s there, but now it’s exactly where it should be. But it just took 10ccs of Kensington Market.”

“Sometimes it feels like the songs on the record are a template for what the songs are supposed to be. We kind of freeze dry them in recording, but then you have to thaw them out and microwave them up on stage, serve them up and it’s often very different. Sometimes it’s way better,” says Baker. “Records are like… they’re very strange. I always think we’re in the… our chosen profession is performing music live. That’s what we do and the records feed into that, the songwriting and everything else.”

With record culture giving way to internet-fueled singles and Radiohead-style releases, though, will a legacy band like the Hip continue to make traditional albums in the future?

“I don’t think record culture’s gone,” Baker replies. “There are people who are very devoted to it.”

“And they’ll always want to come together with other people,” Downie adds. “Which is why we’re here doing this today. I’m not going to say ‘It’s still a people business!'” he laughs, adopting a cartoonishly earnest voice. “But it is. People who are into music want to talk to other people who are into music and that’s where record stores… Like the passing of Sam Sniderman last week. My God, it just reminded people of what a hub that was, for a million reasons. You’re coming in from Newmarket, ‘We’ll meet you at Sam’s,’ and everyone knew what that meant. Music meant… but it still does mean that stuff. It’s just because the hubs are leaving and gone…”

Watch Tragically Hip’s “Ahead By a Century” Video

“You know today’s the 30th anniversary of the CD,” Baker points out. “The sale of the very first CD was 30 years ago today.”

“I promised I wouldn’t cry,” Downie deadpans.

This rather conventional interview happening in the midst of a rather unconventional promotional event is about to take a turn for the strange.

“Yeah, you know what? The very first CD was Billy Joel, and it was a horrible day for music, really. Because I think it was…”

“Wait a second,” Downie stops. The horror of the situation slowly dawning of him. “The first CD down the line…”

“It’s like the invention of the Big Mac to me,” Baker muses.

“Billy Joel,” sneers a stunned Downie, pounding the table in front of him.

“Billy Joel,” Baker confirms.

Downie collapses back into the couch, giggling. “A Big Mac sounds way better. The Billy Joel burger!”

“Yes, the Billy Joel burger was served today out of the window to a passing car.”

“I heard a guy on the radio today say that the NHL was like KFC,” Downie offers, like it’s the most logical segue in the world. “It’s a franchise and if people in the market don’t like your chicken, you’ve got to go.”

I try to argue that most Canadian will probably never be able to look at hockey in such clinical terms and that the way many think about hockey is more…

“Abstract?” the singer grins. “I’m giving it no oxygen, Sarah. Just, full disclosure. I’m giving it no oxygen. Tell me when they’re gonna drop the puck. Everyone else do the same. I’m telling you now. Save your oxygen! It will make the fire go out!”

Their label rep slips back into the room. After 11 minutes of streets ahead, abstraction and fast food metaphors, my time with The Hip is coming to an end.

But Downie’s not quite done yet. He’s given himself something to riff on — hockey — and he’s reacting to it. In this case, he begins to rhapsodize about the twine used to mesh hockey nets in the ’70s versus present.

“And make the nets with looser meshes, so that every goal’s an explosion. Every goal’s an event! Everyone in the rink knows it’s a goal. The mesh explodes.

“It used to be like… The Russians, they had the mesh that hung down. As a kid, I used to draw that. With the puck, the mesh ridiculously extended. In soccer, net into the mesh, like these tight meshes? Why? The ball hits, bounces, goal. But when the mesh…”

The rep refers to the phenomenon as “the old bulging onion bag.”

“Oh, Christ. I knew it!” Downie groans. “Bulging the onion bag!”

“I thought that was something entirely different!” Baker jokes.

“Sorry, Sarah,” Downie says. “That was so brief and weird.”

Given everything that’s lead to this moment, from the multi-platinum-selling band finding themselves in the indie shops and bars of Kensington, to the elusive new tracks they’ve debuted in such a unique fashion, to Downie’s eccentric, stream-of-conscious storytelling between songs in the short pre-interview set, brief and weird is somehow strangely appropriate.

Watch Tragically Hip’s “The Darkest One” Video

This story was originally published on Spinner on October 5, 2012.

 

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Johny Hendricks’ Best Laid Diet Plans

Johny Hendricks

Johny Hendricks

Sometimes elite sports can be cruel.

Like the kind of cruel where UFC fighter Johny Hendricks does an interview with Sarah talking about how well he’s doing on his new diet, but when it comes time to fight he doesn’t make his weight and loses his fight to Kelvin Gastelum.

Sports can be cruel.

Read Sarah’s interview with Hendricks at Asian World Of Martial Arts by clicking here.

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